THE BLOG

Volunteers without Borders

05/19/2015 10:38 am ET | Updated May 19, 2016
Andrea Lonas Photography

I learned the value of volunteerism at a young age. When people ask how I became involved with a program that allows mothers and grandmothers to connect with their families while incarcerated, I always say after 13 years as Girl Scout followed by years of leading my own troop in college, I wanted to serve a program where my skills would drive the most impact and challenge me.

Girl Scouts Beyond Bars (GSBB), a Girl Scout-led program, was established in 1992 and gives mothers and grandmothers the opportunity to maintain and strengthen relationships with their daughters and granddaughters while incarcerated. The program has served thousands of girls and mothers across the country since its inception. While the setting may be different, the mother-daughter meetings are still regular troop meetings, with lots of arts and crafts, games, snacks, and fun. The moms take a large role in planning and facilitating the meetings, getting a chance to show their daughters they can be leaders and set positive examples for them to follow.

When I started volunteering with GSBB, I was walking in blind. With no previous experience working in this capacity, I was certain there'd be very little common ground. However, I quickly found I was able to parlay my experience with my father in the Air Force to earn the trust of the moms and girls alike. My father served three extended tours of duty overseas, so I could relate to the challenges of fostering a parent-child relationship with barriers such as distance and unreliable communication methods, much like the women in this program.

For a few hours twice a month, the mothers can temporarily stop being inmates and focus on their children, building a bond that has clearly been weakened with their absence. As a facilitator, I've witnessed spectacular transformations as girls who hardly know their mothers learn to communicate in a positive and safe environment. Likewise, the mothers have a unique opportunity to shape a positive relationship with their daughters in community with other women who understand the challenges of parenting from prison.

I often forget about the shock value that comes with a volunteer experience inside the walls of a correctional facility. Once you strip away the barriers of metal detectors, correctional officers, and meticulously documenting every item brought into the facility, you're left with a Girl Scout troop meeting very similar to any other at its core.

I'm grateful for the opportunity to spend time with these bright, funny, driven young ladies, and consider it a privilege to serve such a unique troop. At the end of the day, this Girl Scout troop is centered on the same core values and beliefs of my troops growing up. It's the same Girl Scout Promise, the same Girl Scout Law; we all promise to respect others and make the world a better place. I am truly grateful for all they have taught me about building strong relationships, the value of mentorship, and the power of redemption.

I'm often asked why I would opt to volunteer with a troop that meets in prison and my response is always the same -- why not? Regardless of your stance on the criminal justice system in America, it is the humanity of fostering a healthy mother/daughter relationship that grounds my passion for GSBB. Actively participating in that process keeps me engaged and devoted. In fact, after nearly two years of volunteering with GSBB I recently took on a stronger role in driving the program as a part-time staff member.

The need for volunteers is ever present in our communities and across the globe. Helping is easier than you may expect. If you have a desire to make a difference, you are already capable. Look at what you're passionate about, and there is likely a charity or non-profit tied to that looking for support. Volunteer your skills or time. Consider asking your employer about company sponsored volunteer hours, find a project to take on with your partner, friends, or children, take action. I can attest to the value it certainly brings to my life. I signed up to be a positive influence on these Girl Scouts; in turn, they have taught me more than I ever expected.

To learn more about volunteering, visit www.girlscouts.org/volunteer.